All the Right Moves has all the earmarks of a sports movie, but it isn’t one. It’s telling that the epic football game usually saved for the climactic sequence occurs in the middle of the film. The ragtag, diverse students populating the team have already learned to work together and support each other. Although it falls into some of the trappings of the teen-angst genre, All the Right Moves defies clichés at almost every turn. It’s not a great film, but it’s a very good one.

In one of his earliest roles, Tom Cruise stars as Stefan “Stef” Djordjevic. In a rare defiance of the super-cool Tom Cruise persona — defined in Risky Business, two short months prior to this film’s release — Stef’s cocky grin and wise-ass attitude get him into major trouble. See, Stef comes from Ampipe, a depressed steel town outside of Pittsburgh named for the steel mill that created it: American Pipe & Steel. Everyone Stef knows works at a mill that sees more layoffs every day. As one of the best players on the Ampipe High football team, he has a chance to do exactly what he wants to do: get out of Ampipe and make something of himself. One would assume he wouldn’t risk everything to condescendingly tell the only interested recruiter (Terry O’Quinn in what could be considered a cameo, except nobody knew who the hell he was in 1983) that he’s looking at other colleges first, but that’s just who he is: a justifiably arrogant kid who thinks he’s untouchable.

This drives Coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) crazy. He sees Stef’s potential, but he knows no college will want a kid with an attitude like his. Stef frequently undermines Nickerson’s authority on the practice field, doesn’t take his studies or his game very seriously — in short, he doesn’t live up to his potential. He coasts on natural talent, when Nickerson sees someone who could achieve greatness if only he’d apply himself. It’s a credit to the movie that my description of these conflicts are much blander and more on-the-nose than anything in Michael Kane’s script.

The film drastically shifts tones after the aforementioned epic game. Its first half feels like a cheery teen flick with a few dark edges (enhanced by the permanently rainy Pennsylvania autumn), but Ampipe’s narrow loss to Walnut Heights (those rich bastards!) jeopardizes possibilities for everyone. Stef’s lashing out gets him thrown off the team (with one game left) and in hot water with his girlfriend, Lisa (Lea Thompson). Nickerson may lose the opportunity to coach a college team. Stef’s best friends — with whom he intended to go to college — obliterate their chances of getting out of Ampipe: Brian (Chris Penn) impregnates his girlfriend, and Salvucci (Paul Carafotes) desperately robs a liquor store to support his struggling family.

Director Michael Chapman handles the tonal shift well, never overplaying the drama even as the dialogue veers into melodramatic territory. He keeps the actors restrained and keeps the conflict focused on Stef and Nickerson more than any other character. The others get their moments — for instance, Lisa eventually admits her anger stems less from Stef’s mistreatment of her (and overwhelming desire to deflower her) than the fact that he’ll get out of town and she’ll never have a better opportunity than grocery clerk in Ampipe — but this is a story about both Stef and Nickerson learning humility from each other. The construction of this conflict is astoundingly nuanced for a teen-movie era defined by Porky’s. Overall, All the Right Moves has more in common with Diner or Breaking Away. In fact, it has a lot in common with the latter, without really feeling too derivative.

Another great strength of Chapman’s direction (and possibly Kane’s script) is the focus on the smaller details. Eternal pep assemblies that even bore the players, pre-game rituals (like touching a game ball from 1960, which one assumes — but the film never says — was the last time Ampipe won a championship), endless bus rides to rival schools, and the muck and mire of the post-game locker room lend refreshing authenticity to the proceedings.

All the Right Moves does a wonderful job making a familiar story seem like uncharted territory. It boasts strong performances (even typical weak-link Thompson is elevated by the film surrounding her), a sharp eye for detail, and a compelling teen-angst story that remains relatable twenty-five years later. It’s much more than an early curiosity from one of the biggest stars of his generation.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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